Mountain Sun Students Volunteer At Raptor Center

Students closely examine a bird at the Big Bald Banding Station. (Courtesy photos)

On Sept. 15, Mountain Sun Community School’s fourth – sixth grade class, the Monarchs, had their first overnight backpacking trip at Big Bald Banding Station located on the Appalachian Trail at an elevation of 5,500 feet. They studied bird migrations with Southern Appalachian Raptor Research.

The Southern Appalachian Raptor Research is an organization that conducts raptor trapping, owl banding, hawkwatch, songbird migration monitoring and public education efforts at Big Bald Banding Station. SARR is a nonprofit organization staffed by volunteers.

This was the third year that the Monarch class has visited the Big Bald Banding Station.

Kim Skeen, upper elementary assistant teacher, said, “Each year the students have an amazing experience and always want to stay longer. This year we decided to camp out at Big Bald so we could have more time learning. We met Mark Hopey, who is a Southern Appalachian Raptor Research project leader. Mark taught us how to remove songbirds from the nets and to collect data from the birds, band them, and then release the birds. We worked with several songbirds, a Sharp-Shinned Hawk, and two Saw-whet Owls.”

Students had the opportunity to participate in the data collection and recording. They got to weigh the birds, measure their wings, band the birds, and release them. One of the highlights of the trip was netting two Saw-Whet owls on Thursday evening.

Xan Mihalas, a sixth grade student, said, “It was really cool to watch birds and identify them. Also, hold them, band them and learn about conservation efforts.”

Prior to the trip, the students researched birds and had lessons on Leave No Trace and wilderness travel skills. The students are also studying biodiversity as their overarching academic theme of the school year.

On this trip students were responsible for setting up tents, cooking dinner, cleaning, and water collection, in addition to volunteering with SARR. This was the first independent camping experience for some of the younger students. They were able to challenge themselves and learn to work collaboratively and independently within the group.

“This was the first backpacking trip for the fourth graders,” said Becky Langerman, upper elementary lead teacher. “It was great to see the older students helping and teaching the younger students who were learning how to set up tents and pack their backpacks.”

The students will participate in two more camping trips in the spring and the sixth and seventh graders will be going on a 3-day backpacking trip in Pisgah National Forest at the end of October. The class is visiting Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center for four days, and three nights next week. Each trip is tied into the thematic units of the year. Because the students stay in the same class for three years, they are able to become more independent and confident on each trip.

Lead teacher Becky Langerman holds a Saw-whet Owl.

One of the biggest successes was the growth observed in all the students. Also, learning to be biologists and holding wild birds was a highlight for teachers and students alike. Seeing biologists in action and experiencing the actual work was inspiring to many students. In fact, two students returned the next week to continue their work at Big Bald. They learned about how the data collected is used to track migration, assist in conservation efforts, and how it’s used to learn about climate change.

“Being able to see a Saw-Whet Owl, releasing a bird, and being there with my friends were my highlights,” said Addie Pearl, a fourth grade student.

Multidisciplinary experiential learning is a key component of the educational philosophy at Mountain Sun Community School. This trip integrated multiple subjects: math, science, language, writing and geography, and it created many opportunities for personal and group development.

The class has continued their work in the classroom through creative writing, creating their own field guide of birds they’ve become experts on individually, and continuing to study the biodiversity of the Southern Appalachians.

(Mountain Sun Community School is a nonprofit, 501c3 independent school in Brevard. Mountain Sun serves children ages 3 through middle school and combines Montessori education with outdoor exploration, artistic creativity, and community service. Call (828) 885-2555 for more information.)

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